We Ought Never To Have Done It: Part Two
"Oh no, that’s not okay." Landsdale shuffled his feet and tried, and failed, to crack his neck. "That’s not okay at all."
He looked to Jenkins for confirmation that what he was looking at was not okay at all, but no answer was forthcoming, so he simply returned his gaze to the ground and said, "Nope, that’s not okay."
What wasn’t okay was a simple fact of observation: there were too many footprints. After following the three original sets through the gate and towards the estate, Landsdale noticed that near the front porch of the monstrously towering house, there was quite a bit more ground kicked up than could be reasonably expected from three vandals. The fallen sun meant that they soon had to break out their flashlights, fresh from some Virtupets manufacturing rig, and the artificial light highlighted the disturbed ground in even clearer detail.
There were far more than three sets of footprints there near the porch. Landsdale had tried to count them at first, but the footprints were so many, so varied, and moving in so many different directions that he soon gave it up. Here was an Acara running back into the house, there was a Nimmo running away. There was…a Buzz? Walking along the ground? Somewhere in there, he thought he could see the original three sets moving towards the house, but the whole thing was so jumbled that he couldn’t tell. And strangest of all, the sets of prints all seemed to move away from the porch and towards the eastern side of the mansion. Despite the fact that the prints all faced different directions, they all moved the same way.
To be blunt, it was not okay.
"So…more than three perps, Inspector?" Jenkins finally broke the silence. "I guess some were flyers that didn’t leave prints back there?"
Landsdale continued to stare at the prints, seemingly not hearing Jenkins’ quiet voice. "They sent me up here to deal with a whole mob. All by myself."
"I’m right here, Inspector."
"All by myself. They knew what they were doing…They want me disappeared, don’t they. Oh ho, let’s send Hiram up to the old Milford Estate in the middle of the night to tackle the largest criminal syndicate in the history of Neopia!"
"Pretty sure they’re still just vandals, Inspector."
"And then they made three sets of prints and the gate and the rest were already waiting here, because this is their hideout, and that hiker is just one of their low-level scouts, trying to dismantle the Defenders from the ground up, and……..and…….."
Jenkins peered cautiously into the Chia’s face. "Do these footprints have some sort of special meaning to you, Inspector? Or do you just need some sleep?"
Jenkins’ words slithered into Landsdale’s ears and wrapped around his brain like a calming trickle of wind. The footprints shrunk in his eyes until they were once again just small depressions in the dirt and not the shadowy cabal he had always dreamed and nightmared of. Just footrpints.
Just too many footprints.
"Not flyers, no."
"You asked if they were flyers. The answer’s no. Sure, there’s some Buzz here, Eyrie, Pteri. Looks like every pet with wings makes an appearance, but so does every other pet under the sun. Uni’s hoofprints right there. An Ixi, assuming you didn’t already foul up the crime scene. Nimmo, Techo, Shoyru, you can basically just go down the list. They’re in here."
"So there were more of them from another entry point?"
Landsdale snorted. "Do you see any other footprints leading here other than those three? No, look at it, they all come from the porch. Although…" Landsdale flicked his flashlight towards the broad porch several yards away.
He had called it a porch, but in reality, it was nothing more than a hundred-foot long slab of stone, seemingly quarried out in a single block. In the light from the flashlight, it was glaringly gray and seemed at odds with the muddled greens and browns of the surrounding Barrens. Fluted columns stretched high above the porch, but where one might have expected a roof, the columns simply ended in mid-air, topped with shrieking Eyrie capitals, eyes jutting angrily out of their sockets. Landsdale felt an involuntary shiver pass through him as he looked at them, silhouetted starkly against the black sky.
These strange columns dotted the length of the porch, perhaps supporting something at one time, but now just monuments to a bygone life. The most eye-catching feature of the entire thing, however, and the one that Landsdale’s flashlight ultimately came to rest on was the mansion itself, that spindly, scary behemoth stretching up who knows how many stories above them. Though Landsdale had no way of verifying this, he had expected there to be a giant wooden door set into the stonework. It would be made of solid oak planks, three inches thick with wrought-iron bands holding them together at three or four intervals. There would two giant rings to pull on with all your might in order to open the doors a crack. And, of course, there would be an enormous doorknocker in the shape of a Crokabek’s head, the knocker itself held in its beak. That is what all mansion doors looked like, and there was no reason, in Landsdale’s head, that the Milford Estate should be any different.
What he saw, however, was a giant hole. Not one that had been engineered, but an honest-to-goodness blasted hole in the otherwise sturdy stone wall. Bits and pieces of wood and iron were scattered across the stone porch, proving that Landsdale had perhaps been right at one point. But now, the door was gone, debris littered the area, and the foyer of the mansion sat open to the elements. It was a bit too high-maintenance a piece of vandalism for your average teenage crowd.
"That’s where they came from. Spilling out like devils." Landsdale swirled the flashlight around the gaping maw as though Jenkins could have possibly missed it.
"Fyora, what did they do to it? Did they come in with sledgehammers?"
"No, see the bits of wood? All on the outside. Something burst out through the door and did this."
"So…all these pets were just waiting inside and were so excited to get out that they actually destroyed the door and the surrounding walls in their haste?"
Landsdale flicked the flashlight back down to the footprints directly in front of them. "What else makes sense? Must have been squatters living here who didn’t like being disturbed. Poor kids look like they got swept up in the mob. Question now is whether they actually committed any vandalism. And whether or not we find these squatters and kick them out, I suppose, but I’m just as happy to let them get on living."
As he said it, Landsdale noticed that there was a stifling quiet over the estate that he hadn’t noticed before, wrapped up in his own head as he was. But now, with the still mouth of the house before them, he noticed a silence that was louder than even his angry thoughts. No chirps or caws from the surrounding forest, no distant storm or whooshing breeze. Nor even, as he had expected, the rumbling din of dozens of pets who had just destroyed a wall and kidnapped three trespassers. All he could hear was the thumping of his heart and something emanating from the hole in the house that he might, if pressed, have called an echo.
But an echo of what…
"Let’s go in," he said abruptly. "No sense staying outside all night."
If the front porch of the house was barren, the foyer was its exact opposite. The room stretched up for at least three stories, walls covered with wood paneling and paintings. Landsdale’s flashlight illuminated their brass frames and barely cut through the years of grime that had accumulated on their figures. Occasionally, between the smeared and blackened rectangles, a hideously-grinning face would jump out and Landsdale would involuntarily take a step back. The grinning specters were interspersed with the usual decorations befitting an old house: weapons, tapestries, curiously-shaped bits of metal and wood. There was even a massive grandfather clock, but this had been toppled to the ground and fairly well obliterated.
The same could be said of the spiral staircase that dominated the center of the foyer. Landsdale’s imagination believed that it had once been a fine piece of craftsmanship with carpeted steps, polished banisters, and probably gold knobs aplenty. Now, however, most of it lay in pieces around them, as demolished as the door had been. The floor directly beneath the remains was also fractured and, it appeared, sunken in a great deal.
"Something heavy fell here." Jenkins observed. "Probably from the third floor, see the way the floors are broken on the way down?"
She pointed, and Landsdale looked up to see that she was indeed right. At each floor, several broken stubs of wood led out from the center of the room out to the edges where, presumably, doors were located in the walls. It was an odd design for a staircase; spiral with a landing on each floor, from which isolated "bridges" led away. However, nothing about the Milford Estate was said to be normal. Not the owner, not the architecture, and certainly not the stories. Blast them, thought Landsdale. Blast these transients.
"So the question is, what did they push off the third floor and why? And if that’s what destroyed the staircase and the door…where’d it go?" Jenkins looked around for an answer. "Something big enough to destroy that staircase can’t have just disappeared. Not unless it just got up and walked away!" Her laugh trailed away under Landsdale’s withering look.
"Funny, Jenkins. My guess is a piano. Probably destroyed after either the staircase or the door, mixed in with all the wood here. Places like this always have pianos, probably one on every floor. Now come on, let’s see if we can find a way up there."
The ground floor foyer had several doors leading out of it, none of which gave any indication that it was going to lead to a staircase. "It looked like there was a tower over to the right," Jenkins noted. "Let’s try this one." The door opened easily, and the pair of detectives filed through, one after the other. The room beyond was pitch-black, not benefitting from the same hole in the wall as the foyer. If there were windows in this room, the curtains had all been drawn.
There was, however, a small rectangle of light shining up from the ground, as artificial as the flashlight gripped in Landsdale’s hand. As he picked it up, he recognized the same Virtupets insignia as the one on the flashlight. "Pant Devil take these gadgets," he muttered. "Jenkins, do you know what this is? I’m too old to keep up with all the new things the Station comes out with."
Jenkins took the rectangular device and flipped it around in her hands. It had a small screen, which was glaringly white, and several buttons with letters printed on them. "Looks like a personal communication device," she finally said. "Virtupets has been experimenting with new methods of recording data rather than just with paper and pen. It’s kind of like a mini version of the computers they use on the Space Station." She messed around with the buttons for a few moments before a small pinging sound from the device caused her to smile. "Yup, there we go. Looks like someone was using this write stuff down not too long ago! See, right there next to that little pencil icon? Says ‘Last accessed: 23 hours ago.’"
"That’s around the time the vandals were supposed to be here."
"This could be theirs! Let’s see what it says."
Jenkins opened the little note on the communication device and held it up to her face, the better to read it. Landsdale pushed his large face in next to hers, and they both began to scan the lines. But even as their eyes traversed the first line, their faces darkened and their mouths began to frown.
To Whoever Finds This Note (it began),
Don’t be dumb like us. Don’t stay here. We shoulda never took that job…
To be continued…